Pregnancy guide > Labour and birth > Labour > How do you know when your labour has started?

How do you know when your labour has started?

Find out the signs that will show your baby is finally on its way.
For anyone undertaking a journey, the inevitable question is: "are we there yet?". But when it comes to your baby's journey from labour to birth, perhaps the most important question for mums is: "has it begun yet?". We look at the earliest stage of labour so you'll be able to recognise the signs that your baby is at last on its way.

What is the latent stage of labour?
Labour has three distinct stages:
  • Stage 1 involves the neck of the cervix or womb opening to 10cm.

  • Stage 2 is when baby moves down through the vagina and is born.

  • Stage 3 is when the afterbirth is delivered.

The early, or latent stage of labour, occurs at the very beginning of the first stage of labour and is the first sign that your baby is on its way into the world.

What happens?
Throughout most of your pregnancy, the neck of your womb remains long, firm and closed. When the early stage of labour starts, the muscles of the uterus begin contracting to soften and flatten your cervix, making it easier for your baby to move down through your vagina. The neck of your womb will also open to between 3 and 4 centimetres.

What are the signs?
The symptoms or signs that mark the onset of labour tend to be unique for each mother so realising that it's started is not as straight forward as it seems. For some the early signs are backache or a feeling similar to cramps or period pains. While for others it can be a feeling of increased pressure on the pelvis caused by the baby's head.

As your cervix flattens, you may experience what is known as a 'show'. This is the mucus that has been protecting the entrance to the womb and is a sign that your body is getting ready for labour. A 'show' will usually take the form of a brownish or blood-tinged discharge from your vagina.

For some women, the first sign of the onset of labour is when the amniotic fluid surrounding their baby begins to leak. This is most commonly referred to as your 'waters breaking' and can vary from a slight trickling to an unmistakable gush of fluid.

You may have experienced Braxton Hicks contractions at some stage during your pregnancy. However, you can tell the difference between a Braxton Hicks and labour contraction because the latter tend to be longer, more regular and more intense.

Contractions during early labour tend to last between 30 - 40 seconds and it is quite normal for them to stop and start. It is this 'start stop' pattern of contractions that is most common in the early stage and shouldn't be cause for concern.

How long does it last?
The amount of time that this early stage lasts can vary significantly from mother to mother. For some it can be a matter of hours, while for those experiencing their first pregnancy it can last for as long as 24 to 48 hours. Again, there is no hard and fast rule as to how long your early labour will last and it seems to be a unique experience for each mother.

What should I do?
It is important to always to keep your midwife informed of any developments during the term of your pregnancy. If you think that your labour has started, your waters have broken or you have had a 'show' then you should ring your midwife straight away for advice.

What can I do to help?
During the early period of labour it is best to stay calm, try to relax and keep yourself occupied. It is also important to conserve your energy for stage 2 of your labour. Some ways of coping with early labour which are recommended by the NHS include:
  • Try to keep your breathing deep, steady and slow during each contraction.

  • Have a warm bath.

  • Try to remain upright as much as possible to help your baby descend into the pelvis (sitting on a birth ball is good for this).

  • Stay active by taking a gentle walk.

  • Keep your energy levels up by eating carbohydrates like bread and pasta.

  • Drink plenty of fluids.

  • Use a tens machine.

What happens next?
Once your contractions have become increasingly regular and more intense then it is likely that you are entering the active phase of the first stage of your labour. By this stage your contractions may be coming as close as 2 to 5 minutes apart and lasting for between 45 and 60 seconds.

If you think that you are entering the active phase of labour, then you should contact your midwife for advice as it is probably time for you to think about heading to the hospital!

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I'm four months now going to five and having back pains! And is my second child! But I'm scared of labour now than before because I knew nothing before! But now it feels diferent I'm realy scared to deliver the baby! How do I handle this mater because is eating me everyday! How do I deal with this!

From south africa
by pcselamolela 20th Jun 2013, 3:21pm
I couldn't go into labour, so my Dr got me admitted and a vagina tablet was inserted to soften the cervix at around 10am. the water broke around 1pm and then a little cramp. by 6pm I was speaking in tongues and saying all kind of prayers. my Dr left and said if by 9pm d labour doesn't progress then I would be induced, but the lord was on my side. shortly after everything happened at once and by 9pm d little brat was out n screaming for milk!
by mairos 5th Jan 2011, 9:30am
i m pregnant 30 weeks now and my problem is that i keep getting slight pain in my vagina as i sit down to pass urine, is it normal or is it something to worry about ?
by irfana786 27th Aug 2010, 5:00pm
Hi. My waters broke at 4am and went into hospital to be sent home for 12 hours. Over the next 24 hours i had what i thought was constipation pains and was even given Fibrogel and had a pessary. However, i now know that these were contractions!!!!!
by snuffles1 14th May 2010, 3:28pm